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Reversing the Flow

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Reversing the Flow

How to serve yourself while helping others.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D. More by this author
Sep 29, 2009 at 10:00 AM

US Airways flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, but less than two minutes into the ascent, a large flock of Canada geese collided with the plane and disabled both engines. Engine power was lost, and in moments, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger also lost communication with air-traffic control. What to do? Relying on experience, the ability to stay calm under pressure, and a stunning display of creativity and chutzpah, he glided the aircraft eight miles and ditched safely in the Hudson River. All 150 passengers and 5 crew members survived.

When the downed plane began to take on water, several men tried to help the women and children evacuate first. Others pushed or jumped over their fellow passengers, desperately trying to escape. And a few blocked the way in an attempt to save their luggage . . . go figure. (They must have been lost in a good novel during that safety briefing that tells you to leave your stuff behind—yes, some people actually need to be told—in case of an emergency landing.)

Miraculously, all 155 souls got out. The last to leave was the captain, who walked the cabin twice searching for anyone who might have been left behind. The air temperature outside was a chilly 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but Sully and the crew peeled off their own jackets and gave them to freezing passengers as they awaited rescue.

Passenger Barry Leonard had jumped into the water before climbing into a raft and was soaking wet and in danger of succumbing to hypothermia. When the ordeal was over, he told a reporter, “I was obviously very cold and one of the crew turned to me and said, ‘Please take off your wet shirt and I’ll give you my dry one.’ And he gave me his shirt. He literally gave me the shirt off his back to keep me warmer. I still have it. And I’m never going to give it up.”¹

Reversing the Flow

Reversing the flow is a term I learned from Susan Baggett and Thomas White, who run a yearlong course in service at the Center for Purposeful Living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Reversing the flow takes the spotlight off self-concerned “I, me, and mine” thinking and puts the focus on someone else’s needs instead. The result of this compassion is that both the giver and the receiver feel better. When passenger Barry Leonard told the reporter that he wasn’t ever going to give up that crew member’s shirt, he said it all. Moments of compassion and generosity are worth preserving and reliving in our imaginations. The positive emotions they evoke are deeply spiritual and expansive. They remind us of what it means to be fully human.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has another term for reversing the flow. He calls it being wise selfish, since it’s a smart way to serve yourself while helping others. Research on the health benefits of altruism bears him out: giving to others reduces stress, boosts well-being, offers meaning and purpose to life, and even helps you live longer. 

Experiencing Flow Reversal

During my tenure as a cancer cell biologist, I finally hit the career wall. Worried that a grant I’d written wasn’t going to get funded and that my research program would go belly-up, all I could think about was myself. Since Harvard had a “publish or perish” policy, not getting a grant might mean not having a job. For weeks I walked around tense, irritable, and all wrapped up in myself. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Then one day my beeper went off at the clinic. An AIDS patient had requested a “peace of mind consult.” No one had ever heard of such a thing, but because I was a meditation teacher, I was called to this man’s bedside.

I went to “Sam’s” room gowned, gloved, and if the truth be known, trembling inside. The virus hadn’t been isolated yet, and I wondered whether I was putting my family in danger of contagion. Then, of course, there was another big question: how could anxious me facilitate someone else’s search for peace? I pulled up a chair and we talked about life as dusk began to fall and the setting sun flooded the lonely room with delicate pink light. I taught Sam how to meditate and then held his hand for a few minutes until he fell asleep. Although he was close to my own age, he looked younger and more vulnerable.

He is some mother’s child, I thought, and right now, I’m the only mother on duty. Watching his haggard features relax, my own troubles started to fade. Caring for him had reversed the flow of attention from my own worries to concern for a frightened and sick human being. Because of Sam, helping AIDS patients became my vocation in the early years of the epidemic, before effective drug cocktails rendered it a chronic illness rather than an immediate death sentence. While I still enjoyed research, it took a backseat to helping the confused and traumatized young men who made up the first wave of AIDS patients. Setting up a clinic for them was wise-selfish. They taught me more than I can ever acknowledge and changed the course of my life.

About Author
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is one of the leading experts on stress, spirituality, and the mind/body connection. She has a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and is the co-founder and former dir Continue reading